2016 was a dynamic year for Voices. We said goodbye to old friends and opened the door to new ones. We began an extensive education revitalization project in Bajo Lempa, started supporting women’s empowerment in Morazán and even joined in on environmental justice protests in the capital San Salvador.
This year is even more special because we turn 30! Since our inception in the refugee camps until now, we have never deserted our communities and are committed to being a critical source of support for them now, and in the future.
Read our report to find out what our partners have been up to, the large scales issues they are facing and how Voices has been working hard in collaboration with leaders to find solutions to issues and pathways to accomplishing goals.
The application of El Salvador’s complete ban on abortion is among the most draconian in the world.
One thing that makes it so barbaric is that women who miscarry can be convicted of murder and be sentenced to 30 to 40 years in prison. Right now there are at least 15 women (called Las 17) living in El Salvador’s notoriously over-crowded, violent prisons just for having a miscarriage.
Approximately one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, so in El Salvador every woman who gets pregnant is at risk of ending up in jail.
Actually, its not every woman – those who can afford it go to private hospitals and clinics where they receive proper care (including abortions) and privacy. Poor women, however, must rely on the public hospitals and clinics where they may receive good care, or be treated as criminals.
In recent months, the case of Carmen Guadelupe Vasquez has gotten some international attention. After a long battle, advocates secured her release after she miscarried and was convicted for murder. Guadelupe served more than 7 years of her 30-year sentance. Guadelupe’s is not an uncommon story. At the age of 18 she was working as a maid for a family in San Salvador. The family’s neighbor raped Guadelupe and she became pregnant. She miscarried and sought care at a public hospital where a nurse or doctor called the police. Guadelupe was arrested and handcuffed to her bed.
One incredible aspect of these cases is how easy it is to convict women accused of violating the abortion ban or homicide. The impunity rate for violent crimes against woman (including rape and murder) is between 95 and 97%. That means if a man rapes or kills a woman, he’s got a good chance of getting away with it. Prosecutors and judges, however, have no problem convicting women for having a miscarriage, and basing that conviction on little or no evidence.
At least fifteen women remain incarcerated for murder after having a miscarriage. While advocates like Morena Horrera of the Feminist Collective and Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion celebrate Guadelupe’s recent release, they continue to seek justice for the others. Advocates have petitioned the Supreme Court on behalf of all 15 women. The court has denied six of these petitions and has yet to decide on the other nine. Advocates have asked the United Nations and other international agencies to intervene.
The Center for Reproductive Rights is currently circulating a petition asking that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry intervene on behalf of Las 17 – please go to their site and sign the petition… and stay informed – El Salvador won’t be repealing the abortion law anytime soon, and more women are likely to be convicted.
Yesterday, Monday November 10, communities on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula took two separate actions against plans to plant 680 acres of sugarcane on a large stretch of empty fields between the communities of La Tirana and San Juan del Gozo.
Communities oppose sugarcane production on the Peninsula due to the adverse affects it can have on the local environment. Growers use large quantities of agrochemicals including the herbicide glyphosate (Monsanto’s Roundup), which ensures crops ripen at the same time. Sugarcane growers also burn their fields just before harvest to remove all of the leaves making the cane cheaper to cut and transport.
The 680 acres leased for sugarcane is adjacent to mangrove forests to the west and north, and a long stretch of undeveloped beach to the south. The mangroves are fragile ecosystems that support thousands of species of wildlife, as well as dozens of small communities that sustainably harvest crabs and clams, and fish the rich estuaries that weave through the forests. The beaches are equally as important, serving as a nesting ground for at least four species of sea turtle, including the Hawksbill, which is critically endangered. Spraying agrochemicals and burning fields would quickly kill off the mangrove forests and poison the turtle nesting grounds.
Over the weekend community members heard the sugarcane grower was planning to start plowing on Monday (yesterday). They quickly organized two actions. The first was a blockade. More than one hundred residents from several communities gathered and blocked the road leading down to the property, in order to deny tractors access to the land. The grower likely heard about the planned action beforehand and decided to avoid a confrontation. The communities remain on watch and are ready to mobilize again if anyone tries to bring machinery to the region.
The second action was also substantial. Board presidents and other representatives from five communities traveled to the city of Jiquilisco, the municipal seat, to meet with Mayor David Barahona. The delegation, which was accompanied by a member of Voices’ staff, went into City Hall and asked to meet with and members of the Municipal Council. At first, mid-level staff told the Peninsula delegation that no one was available to meet with them. After a few tense minutes the community leaders went outside and began protesting in front of the main entrance to City Hall.
Shortly after they began protesting, members of the Mayor’s staff came out and invited them to meet with the Mayor and Municipal Council. The delegation had elected five people to participate in the meeting, but the Mayor permitted all fifteen representatives to participate.
The community leaders went inside and had a productive three-hour meeting with Mayor Barahona and members of the Municipal Council. The Mayor and Municipal Council agreed to support the communities in opposing the sugarcane production. During the meeting the Mayor even tried to call the Minister of the Environment (MARN) and several other offices in San Salvador to try to get action. Community leaders had tried to call MARN officials in the weeks prior but were unsuccessful in getting any support.
The Mayor promised that if a team from the MARN did not in the region investigating by the end of the week, he would travel with community leaders to San Salvador to protest outside the Ministry until someone meets with them.
Mayor Barahona also agreed to create a committee to consider municipal policies that would prevent sugarcane production in the future. The commission will be comprised of community leaders, civil society organizations, and officials within the Mayor’s office.
The actions Monday were important for many reasons. It was the first time that communities from the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula united to protest. It was also the first time that communities demanded that the municipal government take action to stop large-scale production of sugarcane, which is causing serious environmental damage throughout the Jiquilisco Bay. The actions were also important because earlier in the year the communities had formed an association to defend the mangrove forests, and successful actions will motivate the residents to continue organizing. This is especially important if tourism developers are serious about their plans to turn the Jiquilisco Bay into the “Cancun of Central America.” The people who live on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula have stated clearly that when they work together they can accomplish anything.
Leaving the meeting in Jiquilisco, Naun Diaz, a leader from La Tirana, said “ we feel satisfied with what we accomplished today. We accomplished our objectives and we hope the mayor will honor his word. If he doesn’t we will come back as many times as is necessary to demand our right to a healthy environment.
El pasado lunes 10 de noviembre, las comunidades de la Península San Juan del Gozo, en el municipio de Jiquilisco, realizaron dos acciones simultáneas en contra de los planes para cultivar 400 hectáreas de caña de azúcar en una gran extensión de campos de pastizales, entre La Tirana y la comunidad San Juan del Gozo.
A finales de septiembre, los líderes de estas comunidades se enteraron que el dueño del terreno había alquilado parte de su tierra a un productor de caña de azúcar. Una fuente cercana al acuerdo dijo a las comunidades que el contrato es por 15 años y la plantación comenzaría de inmediato.
Las comunidades se oponen a la producción de caña de azúcar en la península debido a los efectos adversos que puede tener sobre el medio ambiente local. Los cultivadores utilizan grandes cantidades de agroquímicos incluyendo glifosato (Roundup, de Monsanto), que se aplica para asegurar que los cultivos maduren al mismo tiempo. Los sembradores de caña de azúcar también queman sus campos antes de la cosecha para reducir costos en la corta y el transporte.
Las 400 hectáreas arrendadas para la caña de azúcar se encuentran junto a los bosques de manglares al oeste y al norte, y frente a un largo tramo de playa. Los manglares son ecosistemas frágiles que albergan cientos de especies de fauna silvestre, así como docenas de pequeñas comunidades que viven de lo que el bosque les provee. Las playas son tan importantes, que sirve como lugar de anidación de cuatro especies de tortugas marinas, incluida la carey, que está en peligro crítico. La aplicación aérea de agroquímicos y la quema de campos de caña matarían rápidamente los bosques de manglares y envenenarían los sitios de desove de tortugas.
El fin de semana pasado miembros de la comunidad se enteraron que el productor de caña de azúcar tenía previsto iniciar a preparar la tierra el lunes. Ellos organizaron rápidamente dos acciones. Lo primero fue una gran protesta que bloqueó el acceso al terreno, con el objetivo de evitar el paso de tractores. Temprano unas 100 personas residentes de varias comunidades se reunieron a lo largo de la carretera. Al parecer, los productores se enteraron de la acción planificada de antemano y decidieron evitar una confrontación. Las comunidades se mantienen en guardia y están dispuestas a movilizarse nuevamente.
La segunda acción de la comunidad también fue sustancial. Presidentes y otros dirigentes de 5 comunidades, viajaron a la ciudad de Jiquilisco, la cabecera municipal, para reunirse con el Alcalde David Barahona. La delegación, que estuvo acompañada por un miembro del personal de Voces, entró en la Alcaldía y pidió reunirse con miembros del Consejo Municipal.
Al principio, el personal de nivel medio dijo a la delegación que el Alcalde no estaba disponible para atenderles. Después de unos tensos minutos, los líderes de las comunidades mostraron carteles con mensajes en contra del monocultivo de caña de azúcar y se situaron a ambos lados de la entrada principal del edificio municipal.
Poco después de que comenzaron a protestar, los miembros del personal de la Alcaldía salieron y los invitaron a reunirse con el Alcalde Municipal. Inicialmente la delegación había elegido a 5 personas para entrar a la reunión; sin embargo, el Alcalde permitió pasar a toda la delegación, unas 15 personas en total.
Los 15 representantes de las comunidades sostuvieron una reunión de tres horas con el Alcalde y parte del Concejo Municipal. El Alcalde dijo que apoyaría a las comunidades en su oposición a la producción de caña de azúcar. Incluso durante la reunión el Alcalde trató de llamar a la Ministra de Medio Ambiente (MARN) y otras oficinas en San Salvador. Los líderes comunitarios habían enviado una carta a los funcionarios del MARN, en las semanas anteriores, pero no tuvieron éxito en conseguir ningún apoyo.
El Alcalde prometió que si un equipo del MARN no visita la región esta misma semana, para realizar una inspección, el mismo viajaría con los líderes de la comunidad a San Salvador para protestar frente al Ministerio hasta que alguien se reúna con ellos.
También se acordó la creación de una comisión para considerar las medidas municipales que impidan la producción de caña de azúcar en el futuro. La comisión estará formada por líderes de las comunidades, organizaciones de la sociedad civil que acompañan a las comunidades en su lucha, y funcionarios de la oficina de la municipalidad.
Las acciones llevadas a cabo el lunes, son importantes en varios sentidos, en primer lugar porque es la primera vez que las comunidades de la Península de San Juan del Gozo se unen para protestar y exigir a su gobierno municipal que tome medidas para evitar el monocultivo de caña de azúcar que ya está provocando graves afectaciones en otras regiones de Jiquilisco. También porque las comunidades están iniciando la conformación de una asociación para la defensa de los bosques de manglar, este tipo de acciones le da un impulso favorable a este trabajo organizativo, sobre todo teniendo en cuenta que los desarrolladores turísticos quieren convertir la Bahía de Jiquilisco en el “Cancún de Centroamérica.” Pero la población se ha dado cuenta que cuando trabajan juntos, pueden lograr mucho.
Al salir de la reunión, Naún Díaz, líder de la comunidad La Tirana expresó: Nos sentimos satisfechos de lo que hemos conseguido este día. El objetivo de la visita se ha conseguido, esperamos que el señor Alcalde cumpla su palabra, y si no cumple, aquí estaremos, las veces que sea necesario, para exigir nuestro derecho a un medio ambiente saludable.
Last Wednesday, October 15th hundreds of people stepped out into a soft rain in San Salvador to celebrate Food Sovereignty Day and World Food Day. Perhaps more than celebrating, marchers were demanding that the Salvadoran government take specific actions so the population can achieve food sovereignty.
Food sovereignty is a fairly straightforward concept articulated first by La Via Campesina in 1996. It simply asserts the right of people to define their own food systems, placing the individuals who produce, distribute, and consume food at the center of the decisions on food systems and policies.
First, marchers want the current Legislative Assembly to ratify an amendment to article 69 of the Constitution recognizing food sovereignty as a basic right enjoyed by all Salvadorans. The previous Legislative Assembly passed the amendment but to complete the process the current Assembly has to ratify it. Similarly, over the past two years, civil society has also lobbied the Legislative Assembly to pass a Law on Food Sovereignty, which would promote the sustainable production of food production and regulate other activities that affect food sovereignty.
The marchers also want the Legislative Assembly and President Sanchez Cerén to ban a long list of toxic agrochemicals. Last year the Legislative Assembly passed a bill banning fifty-three agro-chemicals (the bill amended an existing law that regulates agrochemicals). Instead of signing the bill, President Funes (2009-2014) took out the eleven most common (and harmful) agrochemicals, including Glyphosate, and sent the bill back to the Assembly. When the Legislative Assembly received the Funes’ changes, its members could have ignored them and signed the original bill into Law, or accepted them and signed it into law. Instead, they did nothing. This all occurred during the campaign for the March presidential elections, and the business sector was pressuring on the Funes Administration not to sign the ban. They argued that coffee plantations were combating leaf rust and a ban on agrochemicals would result in a loss of agricultural jobs and harm the economy. Marchers and civil society organizations, however, reject the dependence on agrochemicals and demand that the Legislative Assembly finally ban the use of all harmful agrochemicals in El Salvador.
Another important issue is the Water Law. Eight years ago civil society organizations drafted a law that guarantees all Salvadorans have a right to water. If passed, the Water Law would also ensure that the government could not privatize water resources. Instead of approving the draft law proposed by civil society, the Legislative Assembly began a long process of drafting its own. Unfortunately private interests such as ANEP (National Association of Private Business), and conservative political parties (ARENA and PCN) have been able to stall the process.
Another obstacle to achieving food sovereignty is sugarcane production. In regions like the Bajo Lempa of Usulután, sugarcane producers are buying and leasing large amounts of farmland. For example, two weeks ago Voices’ partners in La Tirana learned that a wealthy landowner that owns the land adjacent to their mangrove forests is leasing 400 manzanas (691 acres) of farmland to a sugarcane producer. United States economic policies are driving the demand for sugarcane. The Central American Free Trade agreement is allowing the U.S. to import more sugarcane at lower prices, and Partnership for Growth is providing incentives for El Salvador to increase exports rather than grow food for local consumption.
While sugarcane will make landowners wealthy, sugarcane production has a large, negative impact on the environment. Sugarcane producers use a lot of chemicals on their crops – fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Just before a crop is ready to harvest, producers apply the herbicide Glyphosate (sugarcane is “Roundup Ready”) in order to ensure all the cane is ready to harvest at the same time. These agrochemicals, which are generally sprayed using a crop-duster, contaminate local water sources and nearby farmland, as well as villages, schools, soccer fields and homes. These chemicals are believed to be contributing to the extremely high rates of renal failure that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in recent years.
Sugarcane production affects food sovereignty in a few ways. First, farmland that could be used to grow food for local consumption is being used to grow sugarcane for export. This means that El Salvador’s dependence on food imports will continue to rise. The environmental impact of sugarcane also makes it harder for small farmers to produce food. Farmers complain that the spraying of agrochemicals contaminates their fields and destroys their crops. The herbicide Glysophate is one of the worst offenders. Upon contact it kills foliage, flowers, fruits, and vegetables that farmers cultivate. And large monoculture crops upset the ecosystems where farmers grow, diminishing bee populations, disrupting forests and animal life, and harming soil structures.
Marchers also demand that the government do more to protect the country’s fragile ecosystems, especially the mangrove forests along the coast. Families in and around the forests often sustain themselves by harvesting the crabs, clams, and fish that live in the mangroves. And an estimated 75% of all commercialized fish in the Pacific off the coast of El Salvador are hatched in the mangrove forests. If developers and sugarcane farmers are allowed to destroy these forests, they will also be destroying the livelihood and food source of tens of thousands of people.
Another threat to food sovereignty is mining. El Salvador currently has a de facto ban on mining. But there is nothing in place to prevent government officials from granting the extraction permits that allow mining companies to mine for gold, silver, uranium, and other minerals. Salvadoran civil society has argued for years that if the government allowed mining it would result in the contamination of the country’s farmland and water resources, greatly diminishing El Salvador’s capacity for food production.
In February 2014, then presidential candidate Sanchez Cerén spoke at an event hosted by MOVIAC to discuss environmental issues. During his comments, Sanchez Cerén said that as president he would sign legislation to ban mining. But five months into his presidency the Legislative Assembly and President Sanchez Cerén have yet to pass a ban. One reason given for the delay is that the legislatures don’t have enough votes. But some annalists say (behind closed doors) that politicians from all political parties give the impression they don’t want to ban mining, and use the lack of votes as an excuse to do nothing.
Again, none of these issues or demands is new, but people are protesting because there has been little to no action. While many celebrate the Sanchez Cerén administration as the second consecutive leftist government elected into power in El Salvador, many in the FMLN’s base are grumbling because they have not seen the kinds of changes they expected. Some have been reluctant to protest against the government officials they voted into power, believing the alternative to be far worse. But others are tired of the perceived inaction on issues related to basic rights such as food sovereignty and access to water, and are speaking up.
This week, U.S.-based organizations working in El Salvador published a letter opposing the U.S. State Department’s threats to withhold a $277 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant over a possible violation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Sixteen U.S. Congressmen signed onto the letter and sent it to the U.S. Department of State, sharing their concern over the controversy.
At issue is a seed distribution program for which the Ministry of Agriculture (MAG) purchases seed corn and beans from Salvadoran cooperatives and distributes to more than 400,000 small farmers. The program is a huge benefit to rural families and the 17 agricultural cooperatives that supply the seeds. The U.S. Embassy argues that the MAG violates CAFTA by not allowing international seed producers participate in the procurement process, buying seeds only from Salvadoran producers. The Embassy will not release the $277 million grant until El Salvador is in compliance with CAFTA.
Voices on the Border, at the advice of our Salvadoran partners, did not sign the letter published by the other solidarity organizations for one simple reason. Communities and organizations in the Jiquilisco Bay oppose the $277 million MCC grant and believe the outrage over the seed program, while justified, fails to address a much bigger issue – the MCC fund will destroy El Salvador’s coastal environment and agrarian way of life.
Yes, the Embassy’s complaint about the seed program is wrong. But the impacts of the $277 million MCC grant will be worse. Here’s why:
1. FOMELINIO will fund large-scale tourism development in the Jiquilisco Bay, causing irreparable harm to the region’s fragile mangrove forests, beaches, and agricultural lands, and drain the El Salvador’s scarce water resources.
2. MCC and FOMELINIO (the Salvadoran counterpart to the MCC) have never considered how the projects they are funding will affect the targeted communities. Jose Santos Guevara, resident of La Canoa and President of MOVIAC, makes this point well. “During the design phase of the FOMELINIO [proposal], they did not consult [the communities] with respect to the type of projects needed for the development of the communities. We have a series of proposals aimed at reactivating production in the region – the construction of levees, improving roads and drainage systems. However, none of these were incorporated into the proposal that the Government of El Salvador sent to the MCC.” The only people consulted were private investors and others with financial or political interests in the outcome of the proposal.
3. In order to have a project proposal considered for MCC funds, an applicant must be able to invest at least $100,000. There are no communities or community-based organizations that are able to front those kinds of funds meaning the only people who can develop projects are outside investors.
4. There has never been a public discussion or debate about the content, objectives, and impacts of FOMELIO projects. State institutions control the information about plans and projects, releasing only vague statements to the media when it is politically expedient.
Over the past couple of years the U.S. Embassy has used the $277 million MCC grant to get El Salvador to adopt several laws and policies that promote corporate interests. Just last year the Legislative Assembly passed the Public Private Partnership Law, which the U.S. Embassy had made a prerequisite for approval of the MCC funds. The Embassy, however, did not like a couple provisions in the final draft of the law and are requiring reforms before they will release the MCC funds. The U.S. Embassy also made reforms to the Law on Money Laundering a requirement for receiving MCC funds. And of course, the Embassy is requiring the MAG to reform the seed program so that international seed producers like Monsanto can compete for contracts alongside Salvadoran agricultural cooperatives.
Just this week, Medardo Gonzàles, the Secretary General of the FMLN, said the government has done everything the Embassy wants, but it seems they will never be able to satisfy their demands. Yesterday, Danilo Perez, the Director of the Center for Consumer Protection, recommended that the Government of El Salvador reconsider signing the second MCC Compact because of all the U.S. Embassy’s conditions.
Communities and organizations in the Jiquilisco Bay see the reforms and MCC funds as a really bad deal – adopt pro-development economic policies so wealthy developers can receive financial support to take their land and destroy the region’s mangrove forests, beaches, and agrarian culture. They prefer that the Salvadoran government just say no to the MCC; maintain the seed program the way it is; and start pushing back on the pro-corporation economic policies being pushed through the Legislative Assembly.
Yes, folks in the Jiquilisco Bay are angry that the U.S. is trying to get El Salvador to change a seed program that provides so many benefits for so many families. But they are even more concerned about the long-term negative impacts that the $277 million will have on the region.
Dozens of reporters, spent an entire day, braving the heat to cover a story concerning one of the major issues Voices is currently working on. The story is about the implementation of mega-tourism, sponsored by the Millennium Challenge Corporation in the Lower Lempa Region of El Salvador. The main theme is it’s negative impacts on the communities living in and around the Jiquilisco Bay.
An article published by the Foreign Policy Journal said: “U.S. foreign aid is expected to promote poverty alleviation and facilitate developmental growth in impoverished countries. Yet, corporations and special interest groups have permeated even the most well-intended of U.S. policies.”
The United States has $277million in aid money to grant El Salvador and much of it will promote tourism in the Jiquilisco Bay by funding infrastructure projects like wharfs ans marinas in order to encourage private investment.
Voices has been working extensively with communities and NGO’s in the Lower Lempa region to ensure that residents are bring represented, rights are being protected and those in charge are being held accountable for non-ethical practices. La Tirana and El Chile are two communities most affected by the plans and have expressed concerns about the potential threats to the land, the water, the culture and the economy of their communities. Voices even collaborated with them to create a detailed report on the situation. >> Read the report here >> Read the article here
“They are privatizing our happiness. They are stealing our smiles.” La Tirana’s community leader said as he looked over the bay where kids were playing. Thanks to the efforts of leaders like him, many of these people here know what’s going on. They know that this isn’t free money coming into their communities and they are banding together to demand that their lives and rights be taken into consideration.
The day’s event was a great opportunity for exposure. Many diverse, national and international journalists were able to experience the reality these communities face. These communities have been taking good care of the natural resources through climate change, contamination and even flooding with little to no help from the government. To them, these resources are their lifeline. This is something that tourists who are primed to vacation here will never understand.
Two weeks ago we posted a report on tourism and another report on how land speculation is affecting land rights in El Chile, a small community on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula.
We wrote the report on El Chile in full cooperation with the community and they approved the final draft. Hours after we posted it, however, a community representative called and asked that we wait on posting it due to growing tensions in the region.
We met with the community again this week and they gave an enthusiastic green light on posting the report. Tension around the issue has not subsided but the community feels it is important to get their story out, and they are more determined than ever to defend their land.
Please take a look at the El Chile report. Even if you’ve never been to the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula, the struggle for land rights and the opposition to large-scale tourism in the Bay of Jiquilisco will soon be a national issue, and El Chile appears to be where the struggle to prevent large-scale tourism is beginning.